With the two-week reprieve from school in March of 2020 finally ending months later, educators are forced to confront the future of the US school system. With the future uncertain, who can we turn to? What were the benefits, if any, of online learning? What struggles did it pose? What was best for educators, and what was best for students? How does one teach an art-based class virtually? Ryan Foti is an art teacher at Mount Saint Joseph High School. He has been teaching multiple art classes for twelve years, and by 2020 had formed a sort of “classroom flow.”
“Well, I mean, with us in the arts program, there’s a bit of an introduction, and then there’s a lot of work time, and then there’s a reflection.” In a normal year. But as we are brutally aware, 2020 was not a typical year. When asked if a lack of in-person instruction had a significant effect on productivity, Mr. Foti responded: “I see this year (2021) and the year before (2019) and compare it to that 2020 year, and the difference is exponential.” And that, while in person, “In a matter of one and a half seconds I can survey my entire room, see how they’re doing, and identify who needs help and who can be pushed harder.” The benefit of a working classroom, where a teacher can simply walk up behind a student, glance over their work, and offer off-the-cuff instruction is impossible in an online environment.Embed from Getty Images
The sudden switch to the most extended two-week reprieve from school posed new challenges. “Everyone has a different device,” Mr. Foti stated, “some students were working with iPads, some were working with computers, so changing what I was doing was really dependant on access to stuff.” The issue stemmed not from a lack of access to technology, as Mount Saint Joseph provides iPads to all their students, however from the variety of technology. “You were teaching the same thing but three different ways: this is how you do it on a computer, this is how you do it on an iPad, and this is how you do it on a phone. Oh, none of those are working cause everything is out? Ok, well, you can draw on a piece of paper and use that as a way to brainstorm. It was a lot of, like, a lot of pivoting. Pivot was a big word.”
Pivoting is nothing new to teachers. In the last two decades, schools have had to rethink how they teach. As technology becomes more and more integrated into our daily lives, it becomes more and more necessary in educational environments. Advances in science and math can entirely change curriculums. History changes daily, and some courses such as English have the opportunity to cover a different curriculum (to an extent) every year. Mr. Foti believes that “being able to adapt to students, and their needs is what makes you (the teacher) and your students effective.”
A shift in learning resulted in a change in schedule. Students at Mount Saint Joseph transitioned from a schedule that included eight 40 minute periods in a given day to four 45 minute periods in a day with longer teacher office hours, giving students the ability to meet in small groups via zoom. The schedule also had “off days,” where students would not have a class every day. In a regular schedule, students would have the same classes every day. In the distanced learning schedule, students would have half of their classes one day and the other half the next day. “It works well for the arts because having more time is actually a benefit for us,” Mr. Foti commented, “I would take those off days and say it was an expectation that they did some work for my class on those off days… some did and some didn’t.”
The schedule ultimately changed to become a hybrid schedule, where the student body was split into “cohorts.” These cohorts would alternate days that they would meet in person (cohort 1 was in school on Mondays and Wednesdays, cohort 2 was in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays), and the cohort that was not in school physically attended via zoom. Mr. Foti believes that students and faculty alike were “split between two places;” students couldn’t establish their usual “class culture” that came with being fully in person or online. School serves as many students’ social cocoons, allowing them to develop social skills and collaborate with peers in a way they may not be able to if isolated.
Where are we headed? What do all these changes mean for the future of education? Mr. Foti believes that the year spent teaching virtually served as a sort of “forced boot camp for a lot of teachers to up their game in terms of 21st-century skills;” in that teachers were forced to relearn how to teach utilizing the advancements in technology we have seen in the last twenty years. Teachers now engage students more rather than encourage the regurgitation of information. Moving forward, we may have opportunities to take classes with students from other countries; however, nothing will replace the classroom flow that in-person school accomplishes.